After graduating from the Naval Academy, landing planes on aircraft carriers, and flying cargo around the world in FedEx jets for almost 30 years, retirement requires a worthwhile pursuit.
For Stuart Cummings, a former aerospace engineer and current Boulder resident, carbon-neutralizing his life — and helping others do the same — seems a valuable pastime. He considers himself “working the problem into the ground.”
“When you’re a pilot and your plane is going down, you don’t waste time screaming,” he said. “You try to fix what’s wrong until you hit the ground.”
The ground, in this metaphor, are the catastrophic effects brought by climate change. The degree of that catastrophe is what humanity must now try to alter. Cummings hopes electrifying our homes and vehicles will help head off the worst repercussions. If it has any chance of working, though, we have to do it quickly.
“Everyone needs to drop what they’re doing and do this,” Cummings said.
The “this” is finding where you emit carbon and counteracting it. For most of us, that’s mostly where we live and how we get around.
Don’t try to do it all at once
Just down the road from Fairview High School sits Cummings’s 1966 split level. The house’s age is itself a statement in sustainability. “I’ve never bought a new house,” Cummings said. “I don’t want to subsidize new housing construction.”
Carbon is locked away in every piece of a house — from its wood to concrete. When that old home is demolished to build a “brand new, shiny one,” the stored carbon is released. Where Cummings allowed that some areas of our country have housing stock that would be better torn down and rebuilt, he thinks most homes in Boulder are prime candidates for refurbishing.
“It’s a good house,” Cummings said of his home. “Not the prettiest around, but a good, solid house.”
In front of his good, solid house sits a 2018 Chevy Bolt, covered against the elements. Cummings brings his Bolt to car shows to try and convince the EV-curious to get one of their own. Electric vehicles are what most people first dabble in on the road to electrification. It’s a good first step, Cummings said, especially if you put a lot of miles on your gas guzzler.
“We started out leasing [Nissan’s] Leaf, just like everyone else,” he said. “Because the tech was changing so fast.”
But before leasing the Leaf, Cummings prepared for the change. In 2012, after buying his house, he installed a more robust electrical panel that would be able to satisfy an EV’s charging needs. Another six years passed before he bought his first EV, a thoughtful timetable he followed in other electrifying installations.
“You don’t have to do it all at once,” Cummings said.
And you shouldn’t. Because a lot of this stuff isn’t cheap.
A heat pump, what’s going to replace your gas furnace, will set you back at least $20,000, and that’s likely conservative when considering the heat pump installers.
“One of the biggest problems right now is overcharging by contractors,” Cummings said. “They’re not on board with the new technology yet, they don’t have enough trained people, and they’re still dominated by the oil and gas industry. They just want to sell you a gas furnace.”
Guidance for the electric-curious
To prevent others from being ripped off by the world of HVAC and contractors — along with providing guidance through the parallel universes of electric vehicles and home insulation — Cummings is helping launch Go Electric Colorado, an organization that should get off the ground in the coming months. Go Electric will provide folks seeking carbon-neutrality advice from those already on the path. “I’m not a licensed contractor,” Cummings said. “But I’ve learned a lot.”
Cummings, and others like him, could tour your home and offer insight on minutiae that an electric-excited homeowner might miss. You’re thinking of getting rid of your gas heat? You want a heat pump that will work in Colorado’s cold climate. (Cummings said some contractors will incorrectly suggest a Cold Climate Heat Pump is an oxymoron.) You also probably want to have a wood stove as a backup in case of a power outage.
“With this thing, I know I’m never going to freeze my pipes and destroy my house,” Cummings said of the stove resting in his home’s basement.
Solar is another puzzle. Many considering electrification think of panels as the first step. Cummings thinks they shouldn’t even be the second, or the fifth.
“Make solar dead last,” he said. “You can buy wind-source or solar credits from Xcel. Instead of paying 25 or 30 grand on a solar setup, spend an extra five or 10 bucks a month. It’s way more important to get an EV, get a heat pump, or even start with a [heat pump] water heater. That’s the low-hanging fruit.”
There’s lots of low-hanging fruit: less-costly ways to make your home more efficient. Some of the first modifications Cummings made to his home were shutters on the South/West side of his house that provide resistance against summer sun, a barrier against winter wind, and added fire protection in case of a nightmare. “They’re a Front Range multi-tool,” he said.
Yet Cummings does have solar panels, 25 of them, sitting on the roof above his shutters. The set up cost him upwards of $35,000. For those who want solar, and can stomach such a price, there are still benefits of putting other electrification first, like seeing your true electrical needs so you can adjust your panels accordingly. “I tell everyone, load up on all your electric gadgets first,” Cummings said. “Your electric consumption is going to at least triple.”
Many paths to the same goal
Different lifestyles will affect how you tiptoe your way into electrification. For those who drive a lot, Cummings said the priority should be an electric vehicle, followed by a hot water heater, then a heat pump. For those who don’t drive as much, the car can follow the other two investments. Either way, Cummings reiterated the long-term goal for everyone should be a carbon-free existence.
“Most people don’t know they need to do this,” he said. “Most people know now they need an electric car. Most people know getting solar panels is a good idea. But they’ll stop there. And they’ve still got a, what? Gas dryer, gas water heater, a gas furnace, gas range top. They’re still polluting the shit out of the world. They still have a massive carbon footprint.”
It would be difficult to say Cummings isn’t walking the walk. Not only has he not eaten meat out of environmental concern since college, but now even his bathroom sports an electric toilet outfitted with a bidet. Because “when you buy toilet paper, that’s really really bad,” he said. “That’s virgin forests from Canada they’re cutting down.”
Utilities will have to put a pep in their step should we all swallow the electrification pill. As Cummings said, if everyone in his neighborhood suddenly electrified their homes, tripling their electric use, “transformers would melt.” We’re going to need some thicker wires and bigger transformers.
Xcel has time: Currently, Cummings owns the only fully electric home in his neighborhood. But it can’t remain that way. Because unless we all dive into this project with gusto, we’re going to hit the metaphorical ground.
For those interested, Cummings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Cummings’s car was originally referred to as a Chevy Volt, Chevy’s hybrid now discontinued. Cummings show car is really a Chevy Bolt, an all electric vehicle.